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Cobourg and Peterborough Railway Reporting mark: Unknown

The Cobourg and Peterborough Railway (C&P) began as an ambitious plan to connect the newly blossomed towns of Cobourg and Peterborough by rail. First conceived in the 1830s, the railway was granted a charter in 1834 as the Cobourg Rail Road Co. The original plan went nowhere, a victim of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837, a severe economic recession, and general reluctance to invest in what was a highly speculative venture at the time.

The project came back to life in 1846 when Samuel Gore built a plank road from Cobourg to Rice Lake. Known as the Cobourg and Rice Lake Plank Road and Ferry Co., the wooden road proved vulnerable to slushy weather conditions in the spring and fall and was abandoned after one mere season.

Given the unencouraging results of the first two railway attempts, the citizens of Cobourg certainly deserved high marks for optimism. Not to be deterred, the railway project resurfaced again in 1852, this time as the Cobourg and Peterborough Railway (C&P). This incarnation involved a bold plan to build a bridge nearly 5 km long across Rice Lake, which at the time would have been the longest bridge in North America.

Early promoters of the new company included D'Arcy Boulton Jr., Andrew Jeffrey, Cobourg mayor Ebeneezer Perry, H. Ruttan and T. Dumble. Their first choice for engineering was Samuel Keefer, who unfortunately was not available. The construction contract was eventually picked up by Zimmerman & Balch, probably the most well-known railway contractor in Canada during that period. Chief engineer was Ira Spaulding, a friend of Zimmerman, who had worked on the central division of the Great Western Railway.

Samuel Zimmerman was well-connected, both politically and financially. However his reputation as a contractor was somewhat less than stellar. Zimmerman was known for rather duplicitous dealings that involved waiting until the job was almost complete and then demanding more cash to cover "cost overruns." Construction would then be put on hold until the ransom was paid. The good citizens of Cobourg were about to walk head first into Zimmerman's trap.

The most vital component for the railway's success was the bridge across Rice Lake. It consisted of a long trestle set on piles with 31 truss spans and a centre pivot drawbridge. Had it succeeded, it would have been a masterful feat of engineering for the time.

Construction began in early 1853. It turned out Zimmerman wasn't the only problem the fledgling railway promoters had to contend with. The construction workers, primarily German immigrants who were being paid $1 a day, were ravaged by a cholera epidemic that spread quickly throughout the construction site. Upon "completion" of the contract, Zimmerman refused to hand over the tracks, engines or rolling-stock until his demands for extra cash had been met. Litigation was not an option. Consequently the municipality was forced to pay up and accept an incomplete railway.

On December 29, 1854, the railway finally reached Peterborough at Ashburnham. Citizens were offered a free ride on the 28.5 mile-long (45.8 km) marvel. The jubilations were short-lived. Three days later, on January 1, 1855, it was discovered that shifting ice had pushed the bridge to the point of instability. The railway was shut down until the spring when repairs could be made.

In the meantime, Zimmerman entered into a contract with the rival Port Hope, Lindsay and Beaverton Railway (PHL&B) which was building a parallel line from Port Hope, about 14 km west of Cobourg. Although the PHL&B also paid dearly for Zimmerman's services, the railway was completed and fully operational by the summer of 1858. The company then proceeded to make the most of their competitor's misfortune by advertising the railway as "the reliable route to Peterborough."

The bridge remained an ongoing problem. John Fowler replaced Spaulding as engineer but there was only so much he could do in the face of major construction deficiencies. The bridge was ravaged repeatedly every winter for the next three years. In 1861 it finally collapsed, apparently aided and abetted by sabotage, courtesy of the rival PHL&B. Using rather underhanded tactics, the PHL&B had managed to gain control and get the C&P under lease in 1859. They then proceeded to ransack the railway and transfer various components and equipment over to the PHL&B. The new operators later admitted to removing the iron bolts and fittings from the bridge and moving them to their Millbrook line, thereby contributing to the final collapse. Considering the sorry state of construction, this final piece of treachery hardly seemed necessary.

By the mid 1860s, the beleaguered citizens of Cobourg had mortgaged their future by investing over $1 million in a bankrupt railway that went to nowhere. On the other hand, the citizens of Peterborough were now being served by two railways (when the C&P was running) without having invested a penny. Determined to salvage whatever they could, the railway was sold to the Marmora Iron Works in 1866 for $100,000. The company, which had recently been acquired by a group of American investors, planned to use the railway to haul iron ore from the new mine in Blairton on Crowe Lake.

On paper it all looked good. The new owners merged the two companies together as the Cobourg, Peterborough & Marmora Railway and Mining Company (CP&M&M) and built a new stretch of line from Trenton Bridge to Crowe Lake. Ore was then loaded from rail on to barges, hauled over to Harwood where it was transferred back to rail and then on to the docks at Cobourg for shipping to the US.

The mine was successful for a number of years until unforeseen events once again conspired against the railway. A serious economic downturn in 1873, coupled with a collapse in the iron market, led to the closure of the mine. By 1877 the company was bankrupt. In 1885 the assets were purchased for $30,000 and reorganized as the Cobourg, Blairton & Marmora Railway & Mining Company (a simple switch of names from Peterborough to Blairton). A hoped-for sale to the Ontario and Quebec Railway (later Canadian Pacific Railway) never materialized. The remains of the company were finally absorbed into the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) in 1893.

The GTR (later CN) had little need for the CP&M&M. By then the mines were already being well served by the Central Ontario Railway with a connection to the GTR in Trenton. The Blairton section was immediately abandoned. The remainder of the railway remained in use until 1898 when it was mercifully extinguished by the GTR. The section from CN's main line to the port in Cobourg lasted until the 1980s.

The Cobourg and Peterborough Railway began as an early and enlightened plan of using rail to help build the industrial base of a community. Sadly this ill-fated project was the victim of poor planning, betrayal by the directors, competing business interests and sheer bad luck. A few vestiges, mainly stations, are all that remain of the C&P. The Harwood station is now owned by the Harwood Station Heritage Museum Foundation. Plans are currently underway to restore the station and turn it into a museum.

The town of Cobourg continues to be well-served by rail, both CN and CPR. The VIA Rail station, built in 1911 by the GTR, has been restored and remains in use as a passenger terminal.